During the Civil War, Silas Weir Mitchell treated wounded soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg at Turner's Lane Hospital in Philadelphia. The hospital was almost exclusively devoted to nerve injury and disease, but it was known as the "Stump Hospital" because of the hundreds of amputee patients in residence. It was through this work at Turner's Lane that Mitchell eventually coined the term phantom limb to describe the "sensory ghosts" patients would often experience after amputations - the feeling that the missing limb was still present, active, and receptive to sensation.
Mitchell initially wrote about phantom limbs in his 1866 fictional short story, "The Case of George Dedlow," 1 in which an assistant surgeon serving in the Union Army loses all four of his limbs through wounds and infection. The protagonist experiences phantom sensations and is later 'reunited' with some of his missing limbs during a spiritualist séance. In Mitchell's later non-fiction writing, he described patients with phantom limbs as being "haunted...by a constant or inconstant fractional phantom of so much of himself as has been lopped away - an unseen ghost of the lost part...." 2
Over the course of several visits to the Gettysburg battlefield, I've photographed locations where there were significant casualties and where amputations were known to have occurred. The project explores where and when phantom limbs come into being - on the battlefield, in the field hospital, at the moment of wounding, amputation, and recovery.
By choosing to print wet-plate collodion opalotypes, I'm using an antiquated photographic process that was contemporary to the Civil War era 3, but without attempting to reproduce historic photographs. The translucency of the opalotype seemed an effective way to evoke the spectral nature and absent/present duality of the phantom limb phenomenon. In photographing mostly landscape views, I sought to displace the opalotype's traditional usage in portraiture and also capture the descriptive language of amputations, which borrows heavily from the terms for trees - limb, branch, stump, and more.
Gettysburg is often considered to be the most 'haunted' battlefield, but regardless of whether one believes or denies the existence of ghosts, we do know that phantoms were made on that battlefield.
2 Mitchell, Silas Weir. "Phantom Limbs." Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science. Volume VIII, 1871. p.565.
3The opalotype process was patented by in 1857 by Glover and Bold. Despite the unique and attractive appearance of opalotype images, the process never gained the popularity of other photographic techniques. (Blackburn, Ron. "Re-imaging the Looking Glass." MUSE: Art, History, Antiquities, Natural History 05, June 2013, p. 21.